Last week AMD made an announcement that made the rounds, but was not reported as being terribly important.  After having read it, and thought about it some more, the release actually says quite a bit about the health of AMD and what they are concentrating on now.

The announcement was that of the availability of the Opteron 1300 and 2300 series of processors.  These products ranged in speed from 2.0 GHz to 2.3 GHz.  While those numbers are not terribly impressive, one number certainly stood out.  AMD is marketing these products as 75 watt processors.  When we look at what AMD has done with the Phenoms/Barcelonas since their release, this number looks far more interesting at second glance.  The older Phenom 9600 at 2.3 GHz had a TDP of 95 watts.  The current 2.4 GHz 9750 pulls in an impressive 125 watts (shared with the 2.5 GHz 9850).  The 1300 and 2300 parts are B3 steppings, but it appears as though AMD is doing a lot more with its 65 nm process than I had first anticipated.

If you had read my article last week about the Phenoms vs. Athlon X2, you would have noticed that I did not exactly sound very gung-ho about AMD’s 65 nm process and its near future.  Basically I said that it had run out of steam, and we should not expect anything interesting out of AMD in terms of power or clock speed until they release their 45 nm parts.  It now appears that I am wrong.  There is the poorly kept secret that AMD will be releasing a faster Phenom part in the near future.  The pre-production 2.6 GHz Phenom that I used in my review is not indicative of the actual power draw of the upcoming B3 based parts, so do not expect to see power or heat numbers in that range.  The release of these 75 watt parts is the second part of the equation that I was not expecting.

20 watts does not exactly sound like much, but when you go from a 95 watt thermal and power envelope to 75 watt, it is a very significant reduction.  We are now seeing quad cores at competitive clock speeds that are getting close to Intel’s 65 watt parts in both dual and quad core models (though Intel does have the advantage still).  This 75 watt envelope is enticing to a very lucrative market.  When we start looking at 2P and 4P servers (the 8300 series has not been announced yet) the lowered TDP makes these products a lot more interesting to OEMs and consumers alike.  While AMD is behind overall in per-core performance and clockspeed, the other advantages of the Phenom platform really come to the fore when used in multi-socket solutions.  The IMC combined with HyperTransport makes these processors very scalable in HPC applications.  In recent tests I have seen the 4P Phenoms at 2.3 and 2.5 GHz compete very well against the much faster clocked quad core Xeons from Intel.

While it is a positive step for AMD to further improve the Phenom design and their 65 nm process, not all is peachy.  If there is one thing that has caused me more concern than all else it is the lack of 45 nm parts being seen outside of AMD.  The usually leaky motherboard manufacturers (think recent Nehalem performance preview) do not apparently have these chips, and no one outside of AMD has any hands on experience with these parts.  AMD supposedly showed these parts off at CeBIT this year, but it was behind closed doors and very little was known about the test setups.  Considering that AMD is supposed to be ramping up initial production right now for a late Q3 introduction, we have heard very little from any source about the health and quality of AMD’s 45 nm parts.  Two scenarios immediately pop into my mind when considering this situation.  The first is that AMD is very happy with their results, and the electrical and power characteristics of these parts are well within the power and thermal envelope of current Phenom parts and AMD does not feel the need to sample these processors to motherboard manufacturers this far in advance.  At most a simple BIOS revision is needed to get these chips to run on AM2+ based motherboards.  In this case AMD is keeping their chips close to their chest and are hoping to wow the industry with the product they are bringing to market.  The second scenario is quite dire though, and it would be that AMD is having significant problems with their 45 nm Phenom design or their 45 nm process, or both.  If that is the case then it is unlikely that we will see any significant release of 45 nm Phenoms before the end of this year.  The true situation is probably somewhere in between, we just don’t know which end of the spectrum it lies.

Finally we have to consider the bitter-sweet news bit that Ryan outlined earlier today, and that is the cancellation of the 65 nm Kuma (dual core Phenom) and Phenom FX series of processors.  The Kuma situation is actually quite understandable, and it is a very good business decision by AMD.  AMD has not been able to clock the Phenom design to the 3 GHz level in any of its products, and when considering the amount of time, effort, and money that would go into producing this part and how long it will likely be in the market, AMD decided to pass on it.  Kuma would have been far larger than the current Athlon X2 at 65 nm, and it likely would not have been hitting the 3 GHz mark.  When we look at current prices for dual core parts from both AMD and Intel, we can see that AMD would have some pretty thin margins on these products and a short period of production before it is replaced by a 45 nm version.  So AMD decided to cut its losses on this product line and focus production on full quad core Phenoms and Athlon X2s.  The FX situation is purely unfortunate for AMD as it is not so much the cancellation of a marketable product, but rather the grim reality of AMD not being able to clock their Phenoms to the 3 GHz level.  I think AMD was planning on having a 3 GHz Phenom to brand as the FX, but even with all the work done on the 65 nm process, getting the design to 3 GHz was just out of their reach.  Not to go into process theory, but all appearances point to AMD aiming their 65 nm process at sustainable yields with a slower but more power efficient transistor mix.  This somewhat explains the new Opterons with the 75 watt TDP.

In the end AMD has improved its overall yields and bins enough to offer these new Opteron processors at the 75 watt TDP.  This means that the Phenom Phactory is pumping out improved products at an ever expanding rate.  The next quarter’s results will certainly reflect these changes, but while AMD’s product lineup has improved, we do not know at what price these changes have occurred.